Aileen Cole Stewart

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Stewart, left, poses with other Army nurses outside their quarters at Camp Sherman, Ohio.

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At the outbreak of the First World War, the woman’s place was primarily the home. This philosophy would change drastically during the war as women increasingly took over men’s jobs in their hundreds, taking on new and challenging roles previously believed to be inappropriate as women’s work. Many women saw the war as an opportunity to not only serve their countries but also to gain more rights and independence. In the United States African American women contributed to the war effort forming the backbone of African American patriotic activities, many led “liberty loan” campaigns, held rallies and provided both emotional and material support to black troops. They joined war service organisations such as the YWCA and the Red Cross as well as establishing their own groups, like the Women’s Auxiliary of the New York 15th National Guard, to meet the specific needs of black soldiers. For the women who worked outside the home, it provided an opportunity to call for greater pay and better working conditions, just as it provided the opportunity to call for votes for women.

Women filled manufacturing and agricultural positions at home and provided support on the front lines as nurses, doctors, translators and ambulance drivers. Many of the female drivers of the Red Cross Motor Service and other ambulance groups used their own cars including Marie Curie who invented a mobile x-ray unit and created radiological cars nicknames “little curies” and trained 150 women to be x-ray operators on the battlefield.

It is believed that Britain was the first nation to feel the reduction of men in the workforce as they sent thousands of men to France, the Prime Minister of the time Lloyd George declared that ‘who works fights’ encouraging the use of women in the workforce to plug the gaps that were appearing. In other countries women were also feeling the effects of losing so many men to the front lines. In the first year of the war, Germany had 500,000 women in the munitions industry and nearly all bank clerks were women. In France, there were 40,000 ‘munitionettes’ and in the Bank of France in Paris there were over 700 female clerks.

Despite Europe’s example, the United States did not appear to be prepared for the lack of man-power upon entering the First World War in April 1917. The US Navy however, saw that there might be a shortage of male workers and as a result recruited more than 11,000 women to their ranks before the end of the war 19 months later. Women also joined the Marine corps, their recruitment stations were opened to women in August 1918 and some 350 women signed up before the end of the war. The US Army never officially sanctioned the enrolment of women even though Army officials were repeatedly asking for such personal and the Central Records Office and the Central Post Office ended up borrowing hundreds of British Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps members for duty at their headquarters in Bourges, France when no American women were sent over. While the Army didn’t officially sanction female enrolment to their ranks, several thousand US women did serve in both Army and Navy nurses and while doctors were badly needed female doctors were never accepted by the Army.

On April 2nd, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson stood in front of Congress and issued a declaration of war against Germany, saying that ‘the world must be made safe for democracy.’ Wilson’s words resonated with many African Americans who believed that the war would provide an opportunity to bring about true democracy in the United States, after all how could the country fight for democracy in Europe while black citizens in their own country remained second-class citizens?

If America truly understands the functions of democracy and justice, she must know that she must begin to promote democracy and justice at home first of all  

Arthur Shaw 

Over one million African Americans responded to their draft calls and roughly 370,000 African American men were inducted into the army, unfortunately their patriotism did not protect them from racial abuse and attack. On July 2nd, 1917, in East St. Louis tension between workers sparked a 4-day riot that left over 125 African American residents dead and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People responded by holding a Silent Protest Parade in New York City on July 28th, 1917 in which 8,000 marchers solemnly advanced down 5th Avenue to the sound of muffled drums and holding signs that read slogans such as ‘Mr President, why not make America safe for democracy?’ This was not an end to the violence as the following month in Houston, Texas there was yet another bloody clash resulting in the conviction of 110 soldiers, 13 of which were hung without due process and their bodies buried in unmarked graves by the army. 

The racial discrimination and the violence did not stop people wanting to do their part for the war effort. Aileen Cole Stewart (1893-1997) was one of the first African American women to serve in the Army Nursing Corps. The same year that the United States entered the First World War, Aileen passed her exams to be a nurse in Maryland and Washington DC. While little is known about her early life she did write about her experience during the war.

Aileen attended Freedmen’s Hospital Training School where they ran a 3-year diploma school for black nurses. Before their studies there was a rigorous 3-month probation period where they would give baths, rub backs, make beds, take temperatures, serve patient’s meals as well as cleaning beds and bathrooms. Freshman nurses would work 12 hour shifts on top of their studies and the night shift would consist of one nurse who look after up to 30 patients with the help of a graduate nurse only in the case of an emergency. By their third year, nurses were trained for minor, major and emergency surgery as well as admission techniques under the supervision of 4 graduate nurses.

When Aileen graduated, nurses were urgently needed in the Army and the American Red Cross who were acting as the official agency to the US government began a recruitment programme, nurses were only deemed eligible with 3-year nurse training in a hospital of at least 50 beds. Although 7 Freedman nurses volunteered and were accepted, they were placed on the reserve list as the armed forces at the time were not integrated. It wasn’t until 1918 the American Red Cross called African American nurses for active duty to help with the Spanish Influenza pandemic among the coal miners of West Virginia.

Huge amounts of coal were needed to fuel troop transport taking American soldiers to France, the influenza pandemic had the potential to be disastrous for the United States. When Aileen arrived in West Virginia she and two other nurses were met by the Mayor of Charleston who advised that the outcome of the war depended on both the minors and the local Red Cross nurses. Following this meeting, she and one other were sent to Bretz were the people were worse off and later moved to Cascade where she worked alone in the mountains until she received a letter from the director of field nursing Clara D. Nayes asking her to serve in the Army Nurse Corps along with 17 other African American nurses. Aileen went to Camp Sherman with half of her group of 18 where she and the other nurses lived in segregated areas, Aileen said that while they lived in segregation there was apparently no bias or discrimination in their nursing assignments at the base hospital and that they were liked, accepted and respected by officers and men. While Aileen states that she didn’t experience any difference in treatment, other sources have said that African American nurses were only allowed to treat black soldiers or German prisoners of war.

On August 16th, 1919 their unit was discharged after what Aileen called an ‘uneventful service’. Following the war, she continued her career in nursing as a New York public health nurse and she went on to earn her degree in public health from the University of Washington at the age of 68 and continued to volunteer with the Red Cross youth programme until her death.

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1st Lt. Aileen Cole Stewart in formal uniform in 1918

Following the First World War in Britain the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed on 21st November, 1918 allowing women to be elected to Parliament and in 1928 Women in England, Wales and Scotland received the vote on the same terms as men as a result of the Representation of the People Act. In the United States the 19th amendment, passed by congress on June 4th, 1919 and ratified on August 18th, 1920 granted women the right to vote. The First World War represented a turning point in African American history in the United States, military service brought thousands of black Americans into the army, exposing them to new lands and people and allowed them to fight for their country allowing them to assert their citizenship holding their government accountable and to protest racial injustice.

Author- Emily Casson


Women’s History

World War I Centennial

Aileen Cole Stewart. 1963. Ready to Serve

Lettie Gavin. 1997. American Women in World War I: They Also Served

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